Can González Urrutia Win the Venezuelan Presidency? 

This former diplomat, now endorsed by María Corina Machado, could hand the opposition a victory in July according to polls. But the road ahead is, to say the least, tricky

On April 19th, unanimously and after a long series of meetings, the Unitary Platform, María Corina Machado and Manuel Rosales agreed that former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia –already registered in the National Electoral Council (CNE) as a “placeholder” candidate for the MUD card– will be the opposition candidate. On Saturday, representatives of Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) and Movimiento por Venezuela (MPV) –both members of the Unitary Platform– went to the CNE to officialize the resignation of Manuel Rosales, who declined his candidacy to support González Urrutia. But the days went by languishing, and the CNE gave no response to the parties, which kept on insisting on the official endorsement in the ballot. And then, today –to everyone’s surprise and with the deadline about to end– the CNE accepted the parties’ endorsement of González Urrutia (electoral journalist Eugenio Martínez says we should still expect a final CNE publication).

The decision came after Francisco Palmieri, the Bogotá-based U.S. ambassador of Venezuela, said that negotiations on sanctions relief were ongoing with the government of Nicolás Maduro while Brazilian president Lula da Silva –a historic ally of Chavismo– said that it was “extraordinary” that the opposition now has a unified candidate and called for guarantees for the elections’ loser. More importantly, the sudden change of tone from the CNE gave the opposition more room for maneuver, because the electoral board handled it at least three party cards in the ballot, reducing the risk from running at the election if the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) eliminate the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) party card, which until today was the only one with González Urrutia as candidate.

The government’s sudden acceptance of the González Urrutia candidacy, likely as a result from international pressure and negotiations with the U.S., has raised the hopes for the opposition. According to an April poll by More Consulting, 45,8% of voters would vote for a candidate endorsed by María Corina Machado. Only 21.6% would vote for Maduro and 4,9% would vote for Rosales if he ran against the Machado-endorsed candidate. Therefore, with Machado and Rosales endorsing González Urrutia, and given that the current conditions remain, it could be expected that around 50% of voters could hand the Unitary Platform a landslide victory if the elections were to happen tomorrow. 

It’s clear the opposition’s insistence on proxies and substitutes, following the Barinas strategy, has complicated the government’s plans. 

María Corina Superstar

María Corina Machado’s leadership, the key to a possible landslide according to polls despite being banned from running for office, is the result of the leverage the October opposition primaries gave her –where, surprisingly, more than 2.3 million people in Venezuela participated. The primaries also revitalized the Unitary Platform and turned Venezuelans who identify as ‘opposition’ into the biggest self-identification block –back to 2019 levels– according to polls by Delphos. Machado’s electoral weight isn’t surprising: she has a 50.9% approval rate according to More Consulting’s poll –the country’s highest, and well over Maduro’s (26.3%), Rosales’ (19.7%) and even Benjamín Rausseo “er Conde del Guácharo”’s (24,4%).

In other words, Machado –ramping up crowds in places like Calabozo, Tabay and Valera– is a hassle for the Chavista regime. And those crowds aren’t going anywhere, at least in the short term: according to the More Consulting poll, more than 71% of Venezuelans are “totally sure” of voting and another 17.7% says they are likely to vote. Faced with a population extremely willing to vote, Chavismo –seeking to demobilize, demoralize and disarticulate the population– has recurred to bans on candidates, detentions of activists, wild results in elections without the opposition and the harassment of political parties. 

And yet, Machado keeps on rallying the crowds through la Venezuela profunda: only in her primaries’ campaign, she visited more than 90 towns and cities throughout the country. And the number has only risen since then. It’s clear keeping Machado out of the streets is necessary for Chavismo, which has responded in different ways: from arresting people providing services or mobilizing people to her rallies to blocking the road or attacking her or her team on more than 15 occasions. 

Chavismo might have some aces up its sleeve: arresting Machado, as it has persecuted or detained its closest collaborators, or even issuing a TSJ ruling forbidding her from campaigning. In fact, Chavista lawyers recently brought the case upon the TSJ – arguing that she’s deceiving voters by pretending to be a candidate despite her ban. Nevertheless, her online presence –which has ensured her popularity, considering her exclusion from traditional mass media– is unstoppable. 

María Corina Machado with a comandito of mototaxistas.

Of course, Machado’s superstar status is not the only tool the opposition will need. It will also need to organize people, a task it has already embarked upon with the creation of the 600K Plan –to organize 600.000 electoral witnesses for polling stations– and with the “comanditos” or grassroots community groups to mobilize and organize voters, which have sprouted throughout the country. For example, Machado –once seen as the face of wealthy eastern Caracas– is now organizing comanditos in low income villages on Sucre’s coast. But such organization and mobilization plans will also need the rest of the party and opposition leaders, all nominally rallying behind Machado and now González Urrutia, to ramp up Venezuelans throughout: just like they did before the 2015 parliamentary elections. 

It’s still unclear if Fuerza Vecinal (FV), which had endorsed Rosales before the González consensus and whose mayors control some of the opposition’s core districts, will also support González Urrutia. But the rise of a unified candidacy, especially if it gains momentum, could win more factions from the “loyal oppositions” outside the Unitary Platform: perhaps not only the closest ones, like Movimiento al Socialismo and FV, but even forces now rallying behind Antonio Ecarri and others. 

A peace plebiscite? 

The survival of the González Urrutia candidacy could still face a series of obstacles stemming from Chavismo’s control of the Electoral Council and the country’s judicial apparatus. If this was the case, the opposition could have a backup plan in Enrique Márquez –a former member of UNT and former CNE board member, now a candidate registered with the little-known Centrados party– who seemingly celebrated the González consensus but will remain “for now” in the race. Nevertheless, considering the role that might have had the international pressure in securing González Urrutia’s candidacy, there could be other surprising elements if an opposition victory –and thus a transition– becomes likely in the following months: a plebiscite proposed by Colombian president Gustavo Petro, (at least until recently) a close ally of Chavismo, for example.

The plebiscite, Petro said, could be included in the elections to guarantee “a democratic pact” and “certainty and security [for the loser of the elections] about their life, about their rights, about the political guarantees that any human being should have in their respective country.” Lula also insisted on guarantees for the loser. 

While the proposal of Petro –a former guerrilla member now enduring peace negotiations with other Colombian guerrillas– is still unclear, it could follow a similar design to the Colombian final peace agreement with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and its subsequent plebiscite: a sort of amnesty for members of a group accused of human rights violations, a sort of power-sharing agreement and restorative justice for victims of human rights violations. 

The rocky road ahead

Challenges remain. Voters know nothing about Edmundo González Urrutia. He has no presence in social media and has no elected office experience people could remember. A former member of Venezuelan foreign service during the pre-Chavez years, he has been close to the Unitary Platform as an advisor, part of the senior former officers and professors that have been offering advice and help to the opposition parties for decades. 

Now, he has over his shoulders a task that looks more complex than just having his face on a card on the ballot. He must speak to people, show himself, tweet, march, face the crowds. All of which means dealing with the social media era, censorship, misinformation, dirty war and –yes– death threats and a serious risk on him and his entourage. 

This is not the case of the young, unknown member of Voluntad Popular who happened to be on the line when his party was about to take its turn at the presidency of the National Assembly and became interim president because of a certain reading of the Constitution. No, González is –so far– someone who likely never imagined himself as a presidential candidate who at his age is running against an authoritarian regime. His performance in this unprecedented situation is everyone’s guess. As it is the Maduro regime’s following step.

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.